Princeton’s Andlinger Center director Emily Carter was in Bremen, Germany, earlier this week to receive an award from the

German Chemical Society. The plenary lecture she gave associated with the award ceremony was boldly titled “How Quantum Mechanics Can Help Solve the World’s Energy Problems.”

In the video above, Carter explains that her work in quantum mechanics has a wide range of implications for the field of energy: optimizing protective ceramic coatings for jet turbine engines, understanding the thermochemistry and kinetics involved in burning new biofuels, studying the mechanical properties of lightweight alloys to lighten the weight of vehicles, and improving solar energy and fuel cells.

Carter said she felt that anyone who has the expertise to contribute to solving the world’s energy problems should be doing so.

“It is such a daunting task,” she said. “There is plenty of room to do beautiful basic science but also to have a real impact on the world.”

By the way, Carter was quoted by The New York Times in June in a story about the United States falling behind in the business of “green.” Here’s the link in case you missed it.



Nature Middle East offers an an interesting interview with David Keyes ’78, who is currently professor of applied mathematics at Columbia University, as well as dean of mathematical and computer sciences and engineering at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, otherwise known as KAUST, in Saudi Arabia.

The publication notes that  Keyes aims to close the gap between Western and Arab scientific standards and intends for the fields of computer science and engineering to lead the way.

“Ultimately, we hope that we can link the best people from the United States, Europe and Asia to the best people in the Arab world so they can collaborate and develop a scientific culture that is so new that there is no dominant advantage from history,” Keyes, who majored in mechanical and aerospace engineering as an undergraduate at Princeton, tells Nature Middle East.

By the way, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics recently awarded Keyes its Prize for Distinguished Service to the Profession for his leadership and long-term advocacy of high performance computing and computational science and engineering.


Kyle Meng.jpg

Kyle Meng ’05, along with colleagues from Columbia University, has published a cover article for Nature magazine on research linking El Niño weather events with civil wars in tropical countries.

Nature writes that this is the first quantitative study to link civil conflict with global climate fluctuations. The researchers relied on historical climate data associated with the El Niño/Southern Oscilation, known as ENSO. They divided countries into two groups. One group, which included Australia, Ghana, Laos, Sudan and Trinidad, had strong ENSO-related weather events. The second group, which included Afghanistan, Greece, Latvia, Sweden and Tunisia did not.

The researchers then used statistical models to determine the rate of outbreak of civil conflict each year from 1950 to 2004 correlated with ENSO events.

They found that among the group of nations with strong ENSO-related events, civil war was twice as likely to break out during year when El Niño warms the climate, as compared with cooler La Niña years.

“El Niño produces hotter and drier conditions . . . increased risk of natural disaster and hurricane activity, and it’s

costly,”  Meng,  a co-author of the study, told the Washington Post.

Because ENSO affects labor markets, increases unemployment and hampers the ability of governments to enforce law, “as a result, we observe an increase in violence,” according to Meng, who studied civil and environmental engineering as an undergraduate at Princeton and is now a sustainable-development PhD candidate at Columbia’s Earth Institute.

Does this mean that we can now predict civil conflicts based on anticipated weather events?

“I would love to say we would be able to predict conflicts, but this study falls short of that,” Meng said. “We are able to predict strong El Niño years, and based on the result of our study the likelihood of violence breaking out in the tropics increases dramatically. At a minimum, national governments and national institutions should be ready for such a thing.”


Rebecca Fiebrink.jpg

The United Arab Emirates-based newspaper The National has a terrific video of Princeton Engineering’s Rebecca Fiebrink talking about the application of computer science to creating and composing, and performing music.

Two things really excite Fiebrink about the future of computer-generated music:

“The first is the ability to actually control sound expressively and to use the computer in a sensitive, expressive, and even expert way in performance,” she says.

The other thing that really excites her about computer music: “The opportunity to expand music-making to people who haven’t previously had access to, say, playing in an orchestra,” says Fiebrink. “I think that one of the neat things about electornic instruments is that they can be tailored to particular users, to particular even compositions, to places — and allow people to express themselves without necessarily being professional musicians.”

By the way, Fiebrink, who was recently appointed an assistant professor at Princeton, earned her Ph.D. in computer science from Princeton earlier this year. Her thesis adviser was Perry Cook.


Forbes magazine’s September 12 issue has a nice piece by Helen Coster on how trucking company Schneider National decided to invest in a fleet-wide “tactical planning simulator” that used algorithms developed by Princeton Engineering’s Warren Powell to “mimic the decision making of human dispatchers on an inhumanly large scale.”

“What interested Schneider, a full-truckload carrier, was Powell’s work in the field of approximate dynamic programming, which is a way to make decisions in the presence of uncertainty,” writes Coster. “Schneider needed a model that could take into account the nonobvious and sometimes random variables that affect the efficiency of thousands of drivers over weeks of time and at a high level of detail.”

A team of engineers from Schneider and Princeton spent two years developing software for the simulator. The company reports that the simulator has helped Schneider save tens of millions of dollars.

By the way, Wired magazine featured Powell’s transportation research earlier this year in a feature on artificial intelligence.


Princeton Blog video slidesV5 V2.jpg

Extremetech and are reporting on SignalGuru, a network of smartphones mounted on car dashboards that collects information about traffic signals and tells drivers when to slow down in order to avoid stoplights. Princeton Engineering graduate student Emmanouil Koukoumidis and Princeton Engineering professor Margaret Martonosi are developing the system in collaboration with MIT associate professor Li-Shiuan Peh. Cars are responsible for more than a quarter of the energy consumption and 32 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, according to Koukoumidis. “If you can save even a small percentage of that, then you can have a large effect on the energy that the U.S. consumes,” he said.

The researchers, who have tested the system in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in Singapore, have found that it helps cut fuel consumption up to 20 percent. “SignalGuru is a great example of how mobile phones can be used to offer new transportation services, and in particular services that had traditionally been thought to require vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems,” said Marco Gruteser, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rutgers University.

The researchers received the best-paper award in July for their system at the Association for Computing Machinery’s MobiSys conference in July. For more information, see this report from MITnews. Or view a slideshow demonstration here.


Princeton EWB.jpg

Humanitarian News recently featured the Ghana library being built in Ashaiman by the Princeton chapter of Engineers Without Borders.

Judging from EWB’s blog, the crew has made tremendous progress this summer. EWB members plan to finish construction of the library, to outfit it with furniture and books, and to install a digital infrastructure including netbooks and Internet access. The EWB team is also formulating educational programming that aims to foster traditional and digital literacy.

The video below features the first phase of the library project. During that phase, EWB members laid the concrete foundation and main structural elements of the library and collected more than 4,000 books.


Electrical engineering graduate student Yihong Wu has been selected a 2011 Marconi Young Scholar for his work maximizing compressed sensing by minimizing noise and waste in transmissions.

In selecting scholars, the Marconi Society “looks for those who not only have shown extraordinary early promise, but whose research already has been published and made an impact.”

Wu’s research is best described as interdisciplinary, according to the Marconi Society. “With its center of gravity in information theory, it entwines strands from signal processing, statistics, optimization and stochastic control,” the society said in it’s announcement of the award. “It’s intended to further the practical goal of improving the efficiency of signal acquisition and processing via compressed sensing.”

Wu’s adviser is Sergiu Verdú.

The Marconi Society was established through an endowment set up by Gioia Marconi Braga, daughter of Guglielmo Marconi, the Nobel laureate who invented radio (wireless telegraphy).This is just the latest honor for Wu, who also has been awarded Princeton’s Wallace Memorial honorific fellowship, the highest award in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

NPR’s All Things Considered recently interviewed Princeton Engineering alumnus Alex Halderman about Telex, a new software he is developing that may help Internet users circumvent censorship in countries like China.

NPR reports that Telex subverts authoritarian governments by “turning the entire Internet into an anti-censorship device.”

Halderman, now an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan, explains that Telex has two parts:

“First, there is software that you install on your computer and then there are devices that we call Telex stations that internet service providers outside of the country doing the censorship put on the pipes of the Internet — that is, on the wires that are carrying traffic to websites.

“You in the country might get a copy from a friend who has just passed it to you or you might get it from a website that was temporarily available before government censors found it.

“After the user installs the Telex software, their computer makes a connection to some website that is not banned. It can be any website the user would normally visit that is outside of that country. So that it could be, say, a web page about people’s favorite cats — something completely innocuous, as long as it is hosted in another country. That connection passes through the government censorship since it’s not on the black list.

“But then these devices at ISPs that we call Telex stations recognize that connection as a request for anti-censorship service and secretly divert it to a site that has been blocked that the user wants to access.

“We like to envision this technology as a potential government-level response to Government-level censorship. So if a country that wanted to oppose internet censorship were to provide incentives to its ISPs to deploy Telex, that would allow the system to provide anticensorship service to people all around the world.”


Pablo Debenedetti.jpg

The current issue of Chemical Engineering Education features a lovely profile of Pablo Debenedetti, the vice dean of the School of Engineering and Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science.

The profile delineates Debenedetti’s many significant scholarly achievements (he was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering in 2000) but also offers up ample evidence of why he is such a beloved teacher at Princeton. The piece, written by Jean Tom *93, Athanassios Panagiotopoulos, and Richard Register, says that three qualities distinguish Debenedetti’s teaching:

“First, he truly teaches his students how to think: to first conceptualize and then apply new ideas, rather than simply showing them a formulaic approach to solving particular types of problems. To reach this goal, Pablo firmly grounds his courses in the fundamentals of the subject, providing the students a solid base for their own work.

“Second — perhaps a corollary of the first — Pablo recognizes that different students learn differently, and a new concept may be best explained to different students in different ways. Both in lecture and in his office hours, he will tirelessly approach the exposition of a new concept from various directions until he finds the method that allows  a particular student to internalize the idea.

“Third, Pablo always makes himself accessible to his students (all the more remarkable given his other obligations, and facilitated by the fact that he doesn’t seem to need much sleep), and takes a personal interest in each one.”

Read the full article here.

Photo by John Jameson